Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The One Show Movement, AKA The American Made Show or ACRE Philly?

I have been sitting on this post for awhile. Every time I thought it was the right time to weigh in, something else happened in our community of artists and show producers that made me hold off. Now, given everything circulating from other artists who did ACRE and everything I have heard from the rumor mill, I think it's time to step up to the plate.

Apparently I wasn't clear enough in my post about what kind of show I had this year at the American Made Show (AMS) in DC (formerly the Buyer's Market of American Craft) put on by the Rosen Group. That actually turns out to be a good lead-in for this post which addresses the current state of this show and what to do for a wholesale show for American handcrafts going forward. In short, it was a very good show for me. It wasn't the best ever, but it was very good. So why wasn't it better? Though it is never as simple as one reason, I believe it was primarily because attendance was diluted--both on the part of artists and buyers--by the emergence of another American handcraft show on the east coast in the winter.

During the huge amount of downtime I had at the AMS, I had a very interesting conversation with Michael Golan, another artist at the show who has been doing it a lot longer than I have, and who has years of experience in wholesale going back to the boom days. Whether he intended it or not, he became a focal point this year for an artists' revolution--a fomentation complete with torches and pitchforks that started out at the American Made Show and, I assume, spilled over into the ACRE Show in Philly last weekend. While I was talking to Michael at the AMS, a couple of other artists actually came up to him, brandishing their pitchforks and cackling madly about how they were "in". They seemed to want to burn Wendy Rosen in effigy as the source of all their problems because she moved the show to DC in January from Philly in February. Consensus was that she did this (as well as change the name of the show) on a whim, or to screw over Nancy Vince from Wholesalecrafts--the ACRE show promoter. That was not at all what I understood Michael's call to arms was about.

Instead, his proposal seemed to be quite reasonable and something I am definitely behind myself: There should only be one winter all American handmade show in the northeast. Artists should refuse to do two. Michael was encouraging artists to draw a line in the sand and say, "Enough! We will not be squeezed any more! We will not be bullied into doing two shows in the northeast in the winter because we're afraid we won't see all of our buyers. We are going to pick one show based on solid business reasons--not hyperbole--and only do that one!" At least that's that's the gist I got from speaking to him. If this is not what he meant--and I am as liable as the next person to hear what I want to in a conversation--I apologize profusely and publicly for misunderstanding his intent. But I want to say that I am 100% behind doing what I think MIchael said. It's ridiculous to add another show to an already over-burdened, under-served artist community. It's also a disservice to buyers to make them travel multiple times for essentially the same show. Down With Two Shows! Down With The Man.... Uh, sorry. I'm getting caught up and carried away by my own fervor. Where was I? Oh yes, one show.

So how to decide what show should be the One Show to Rule Them All? Michael proposed having an artists' meeting at the end of the ACRE show (he did both shows) to talk about how both shows went, and to--as a group--pick one show to do next year. It was a brilliant, if flawed, idea. It was brilliant because people banding together DO have the power to affect change in their lives, but it was flawed, because most of the people making the decision would be doing so without all the facts and based on erroneous assumptions, and because a lot of the people who could add their voices and weight to the movement (like me) won't be there because WE ALREADY REFUSED TO BUY INTO THE HYPE AND  WON'T DO TWO ALL HANDMADE AMERICAN WHOLESALE SHOWS IN THE SAME AREA LESS THAN A MONTH APART.* But I'm perfectly willing to evaluate the shows on their own merits and then choose one of them to back in the future. I can't speak for everyone, but I absolutely, positively CANNOT afford to invest twice as much money, time, and energy to see the same number of--or fewer--buyers because now we have to do both the American Made Show and ACRE or be afraid that we'll miss out on orders from buyers who only attend one show.

How about we start with some facts, and then finish off with some opinions driven by the afore-mentioned facts to inform our decision-making process.

Fact: It is neither a secret nor a surprise that sales have been down across the board at wholesale shows for the past several years. There are many causes: a recession, increased access to products through the Internet (Amazon.com and Etsy just for starters), the aging out of the gallery owners and the artists who ruled the handcrafts world during the 90's, the emergence of a new generation of self-proclaimed makers--as opposed to artists or craftspeople--who don't do the American Handmade show circuit, and, finally, the ready availability of cheap or knock-off goods from China and the third world. We have to face facts: Artists who put three kids through college from the sales they made each winter at the Buyer's Market show will never see those days again. Those of us who still have kids to put through college had better be looking to diversify our revenue streams because we're not going to see those days at all. It doesn't do anyone any good to stand around whinging at a show about the good old days and pointing gnarled fingers at the show promoter in blame.

Fact: There's been a lot of gossip and conflicting information floating around for the past few years about the Rosen Show changing dates and locations for their winter show. Personally, I don't care about gossip and rumor. If I want to know something, I go to an actual decision-maker and I ask until I get the straight bottom-line answer. So I went to Rebecca Mercado, the American Made Show Director. I asked specific, pointed questions, and am confident that I received complete and honest answers. I got no hype and no bull, just a complete several-year forecast of available space and options. For those who don't know me, I have no agenda to promote here. I am just sick and tired of having my business manipulated by other people. I want one show, at the same time, in the same place, every year, with enough hotels rooms for buyers and artists, and enough hall space for 700-800 artists. Period.

So here's what I got from Rebecca: In 2014 the convention center in Philly was totally unavailable for the usual dates in February due to the Auto Show being given all the halls. In 2015, only Hall A was available for the February dates with other spaces elsewhere in the building (on a different floor) being offered instead. The show moved to DC because the convention center in Philly cut down on the space they were willing to give the Rosen Group in favor of the Auto Show which brings more money into the city than a wholesale American handmade show does. Without the space available, the show promoters wouldn't be able to host as many artists, without a good selection of artists, the buyers wouldn't attend, and the slow spiral down the drain that we have all been experiencing in this business would continue. The show moved to January because Congress is not in session yet, so hotel rooms are cheaper, the convention center was available with plenty of space for all the artists, and the Presidents' Day holiday meant a three-day weekend for buyer's. Fun as it might be to imagine one, there was no great conspiracy by an evil empire to manipulate the little people, to crush our dreams and control our lives. It was hoped that the January dates and the move to DC would not be to disaccommodating for everyone, but that doesn't seem to be the case, and now we have to move on.

So we started out with the Rosen Group changing time and dates for their winter northeast show based solely on long-term strategic planning (emphasis on the "long-term") and incorporating stability, facilities availability, and other market considerations into the decision-making process. They knew that it would take time to move their customer base--both artists and retailers to the new place and dates. But they knew that for long-term growth of the show, the move was necessary. The Rosen Group knew they would take a hit financially, but figured they could weather it.

Then Wholesalecrafts came in, snapped up the reduced space in the old time and location, grabbed a large percentage of the customers--both artists and retailers--for their show by capitalizing on the human dislike of change. I have heard that they have secured both Halls A and B (the traditional AMS space) for 2016 which means they could accommodate the same number of artists who used to do the Rosen show in the same space and at the same time. Wow! Aren't we lucky? I am sure that there are many people--artists and retailers alike--who are breathing a sigh of relief right now because they get to do a show where they are accustomed to doing it at the time they are accustomed to doing it. I, on the other hand, am so annoyed that we got to this state that I could cheerfully throttle someone!

"But, why, Brenda?", you might be asking.  "After all, buyers and artists came to Philly this year, and there is no reason to think they won't continue to come. So if we're only going to do one show, let's pick the easy show for next year: Let's stay in Philly with ACRE!" Uh huh. The only way this scenario actually makes sense and is good for both artists and retailers is if the Rosen Group is headed by an idiot who walked away from a viable, vibrant situation in Philly for stupid reasons. But I think everyone who knows her can say with confidence that Wendy Rosen is no idiot. Like her, hate her, you've got to acknowledge that she built the strongest, longest all American handmade wholesale show in the country. She did it with a combination of good timing, good business sense, and sheer stainless-steel-balls grit. Wendy also has the best secret weapon in the world (for artists and retailers) in her toolbox: She has Rebecca Mercado as her show director. Rebecca understands planning, traffic patterns, dollars and sense (sic intentional). She does not react off the cuff. Instead she acts after careful deliberation, and executes deliberately and precisely. She is the best counter balance to Wendy's expansive, blue-sky visioning that you could imagine.

But maybe Wendy did make a slip, and Philly is still the best place to be for the show and February is the best time. How do I want to bet? What do I know about Wholesalecrafts? After all, I want to place my business in the hands of the the show promoter in whom I have the most confidence. It's not about liking or disliking or personalities; for me it's strictly business and about performance.

I have done shows with both promoters--I did ACRE Las Vegas for the first four years hoping it would be a good, strong, west-coast show for me, and it never worked out. Yes, there was a recession. Maybe that was the problem initially. But my biggest problem with the show was that I never felt like they knew what they were doing. They were very nice and seemed to genuinely want to put on a good show, but they lacked the experience (both the promoter and her support staff) to pull it off. Everything about the show was in constant flux. It felt like they could never make their minds up about anything because they were either too busy getting (conflicting) opinions and trying to act upon all of them, or they were making decisions based on the best price they could get year-to-year for facilities and dates--flying by the seat of their pants. In the nine years since Wholesale Crafts launched the Vegas show, I haven't seen them follow through long-term on anything. Yes, the show started just before a major down-turn in the market, but every single show they've done since the original Las Vegas show feels like trying something out to me. The Vegas show is limping along not nearly living up to its potential. ACRE Orlando came, and almost as soon as it came, it went. I think there was another show in the northeast, but it came and went so fast I don't even know what it was called. Now instead of focusing on their core show, building it up to a west-coast version of the American Made Show, they're in Philly. They're hopping all over place. Why?

Regardless of why, I know that I have to look out for my own business. I have got to choose what shows I do based on consistent performance and the stability of the promoter. A lot of my peers are jumping on the she-said/she-said bandwagon and choosing based on personality or how the DC and Philly shows were THIS year. I'm more concerned with a year or two from now when Halls A and B aren't available again (it wasn't just a one-off problem for the Rosen Group when they were doing their planning) and Wholesalecrafts reacts in the same year-to-year fashion they have shown with their previous shows (either downsize, change dates, change venues, or cancel the show completely and move on to doing something else).

By not having a strong forward-thinking planning strategy you cannot grow an enterprise. I've seen nothing so far to think that Wholesalecrafts has such a strategy in place. Every move seems to happen based on the Now. Lest you think I am sitting in my glass house casting stones, let me be the first to say that I can recognize the reactionary behavior because I am often guilty of it myself. I have fallen into the trap of making business decisions based on something that happened rather than on a calm analysis of all the facts. I have also given up on things I should have stuck with and grown. Had I not exhibited both of these behaviors, my business would doubtless by in a much better position and I would be doing all the shows and not worrying about picking the right one. Because of my own limitations, I have to be scrupulous these days about my choices and plans, and Wholesalecrafts has not shown me the stick-to-itedness that I need to have in a business partner. It is my great fear that they will coast the February Philly show along and not grow it until the slow spiral down the drain is complete. And then we, the artists, will be screwed. The American Made Show will be slowly ground down, the ACRE show will never grow, and we will have nothing.

So here's my torch and pitchfork: I am not going to do ACRE Philly. I am not going to do it next year, I am not going to do it the year after, and if it is still around, I am not going to do it the year after that. I would be happy to do and support the Wholesalecrafts' Las Vegas show if the promoters put a serious amount of time and energy into growing it into its potential, and stopped futzing around and diluting their focus by moving into an area that is already (longterm) adequately served. I hope that many of my peers feel the same way, and make their own stand for One Show. If it turns out that the One Show is not the American Made Show, I will mourn, and I will drink a toast to the end of a great era. Then I will pull my big-girl panties up and figure out another way to market my work to my wholesale customers.

*For those who say "What about the ACC?", my answer is it isn't the same as /American Made/ACRE: It's also a retail show. Arguably the retail component is stronger than the wholesale component, and many artists who do it wholesale have also traditionally done the American Made Show.